Some of us were born to drive, others to be driven. A skittish to obnoxious passenger, I fall into the former camp. The passenger seat gives me too much opportunity to point out what the driver is doing wrong.
A recent surgery on my right shoulder rotator cuff put me in a sling and out of the driver’s seat, just as Bentley offered me use of its $290,000 Mulsanne luxury sedan, complete with a day’s use of a chauffeur.
Good timing. And an opportunity to see if rear passengers do, sometimes, have it better.
Both Bentley and Rolls-Royce started as coach-built car companies where the most important person sat in the rear.
Bentley doesn’t track the percentage of drivers who employ a driver, though the numbers have surely fallen, as the driver-oriented Continental GT series is now its best-selling model line.
In China, however, being chauffeured is a sign of status, one reason why Audi sells so many long-wheelbase cars, and why companies like Ferrari are creating cars such as the FF, with full-sized back seats.
I’ve driven the Mulsanne before and found it to be a big car that proved surprisingly wieldy. It drives a tidy line despite its massive fenders, 7,055 pounds of gross weight and length stretching more than 18 feet.
The 6.8-liter V-8, with 505 horsepower and 752 pound-feet of torque, shoots it forward as if on rails.
Three days after my surgery, Mike, my driver for the day, pulled up outside my Manhattan apartment in an “extreme silver” (a $4,225 paint option) Mulsanne, a car costing $344,950.
He opened the door and I gingerly slipped into the right rear. You need only nudge the door closed and it vacuum seals itself automatically with a soft click. A fantastic detail.
The interior was tan leather with blue, deep-pile carpet. The dash and sides of the doors were outfitted in a deep-colored, burled wood.
I moved the front right seat forward using my own center console controls for maximum leg room. I also engaged the spa-worthy seat massage function and turned on the seat coolers.
The lap of luxury? Yeah, pretty much.
I told Mike we would head to Brooklyn to pick up my buddy Josh, who complains that I refuse to meet him in his own borough. We picked him up at his Carroll Gardens brownstone, and then I asked Mike to take us directly back to Manhattan. (Happy now, Josh?)
As the Mulsanne slipped into the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, we tried to figure out how to operate the remote control for the back-of-the-seat screens. Josh wondered if we could watch live TV (we couldn’t), and then spent five minutes trying to change the Sirius satellite radio station.
My experience with Bentley’s electronic gadgetry has been consistently poor, and we eventually asked Mike to simply change the channel for us. I also noticed that Mike used his cellphone’s navigation function rather than the car’s system.
Backseat arrivistes could opt for Bentley’s new “theater specification” option, with a drop-down LED screen operated by a hidden laptop. Or the optional rear fridge which accommodates two bottles of the bubbly stuff.
My car didn’t come with those luxuries, but it did keep us well entertained with the $7,400 Naim stereo, which sounds like it has a gazillion speakers.
We put on a classical station just to hear the pomp and circumstance at maximum clarity and volume. The helicopters blaring Wagner in “Apocalypse Now” have nothing on this thing.
Midtown traffic, I noticed, was much less irksome when I wasn’t doing the driving. In fact, after running a series of errands which would have been otherwise painful, both physically and psychically, I felt remarkably fresh.
Chores done, we picked up another friend at Union Square and then spirited ourselves north to Central Park’s Boathouse for a cool libation by the pond. Mike dropped us off among a sea of ladies who lunch, saying he’d be waiting nearby.
Several hours later, it was time to jettison the boys and pick up my wife Miranda from work. It was also Mike’s quitting time. The keys were handed over to Miranda, who had been cleared as my next driver.
We were headed for a weekend in the country, but unfortunately started out during the worst of Friday rush-hour traffic.
Miranda seemed remarkably unfazed. I popped out of the car, ordered a sandwich, and returned to find the Mulsanne had moved just three car lengths.
My patience was ebbing and she insisted that we put on the Spa radio station. It actually helped. An hour and a half later, we finally reached the Lincoln Tunnel.
I wisely chose to keep my mouth closed once we cleared the city and Miranda exercised the full power of the Mulsanne. Despite its size and cost, she handled it fearlessly.
With two hours more to go, I lowered my seat and closed my eyes.
Being a passenger does have its pleasures.
The 2012 Bentley Mulsanne at a Glance
Engine: 6.8-liter, twin-turbo V-8, with 505 horsepower and 752 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about five seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 11 city, 18 highway.
Price as tested: $344,950.
Best feature: Drivability and backseat comfort.
Worst feature: Electronics are hard to figure out, even with the back seat’s remote control.
Target buyer: The luxury lover who likes to split his time between the front and back.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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